Recently I saw a movie on the life and death of Aaron Swartz, who is nowadays often called a martyr for the freedom of the Internet.
People, nations and governments like martyrs. They love them, they need them. Martyrs are part of our bipolar, black and white society constructed from good and bad guys, who always do good and bad deeds. Martyrs are those who have escaped our human condition, of being judged by people as people. Martyrs are beyond judgement, they become the scapegoats for our biggest failures, for the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt phrased it.
I don’t believe Aaron Swartz ever wanted to become a martyr. He just wanted to live within a world that he believed he could fix, a world that was technically malleable and hackable, where he could be active and ingenious, even if that reform effort might involve a few false steps.
I find it unjust, unfair, maybe even outrageous to treat his suicide as a martyrdom. The legal machinery that crushed Aaron Swartz could have crushed any of us, at least if we happened to get apprehended and charged within the USA. We need to pay due heed to the fates of those who get singled out as examples. The system by its nature represses hackers, freelance thinkers or Internet activists. Some will die of that mistreatment, especially if they are neglected, or shunned, or met with public indifference and numb stupidity. The exaggerated honor we pay to “martyrs” is a guilty, posthumous reparation for our failure to keep them alive.
More “Internet martyrs” are clearly on the way for a host of nations. Aaron Swartz was a particularly brilliant MIT “burglar” and was therefore repressed with particular vigor by an ambitious American prosecutor. But America has a huge prison system with millions of people behind bars — everyone but bankers, basically. If Aaron Swartz was still alive today, having pled guilty and gone to American prison for a felony, how much effort would we spend to get him out of jail, or to help him once he was free?
Prosecutors of all nations will always play fast and loose with computer crime laws, if they think that nobody is watching or cares. Recently, three bloggers in Serbia were condemned to one year of prison with a particular ingenious prosecutorial scheme. These bloggers, who were writing under their online nickname pseudonyms, made some sarcastic wisecracks about a right-wing filmmaker who is a darling of violent right-wing Serbian nationalist goons. They bloggers were promptly charged and convicted with hate crime and death threats of this author.
This is the exact sort of behavior that the EU would most like to see out of Serbia: vigorous defense of an imperiled author. They probably didn’t expect to see this kind of hate law applied in a vigorous defense of the government’s own apologists and some street-fighting right-wing extremists. However, the current Serbian government demonstrates a true genius for stealing the opposition’s clothes. So here is a case of online dissidents and university teachers being promptly condemned and sentenced as hooligans.
Most anything said or written can become a verbal crime, if the rule of law doesn’t mean much. Back in the Yugoslavian Communist regime, a poet could go to prison for a single word, if it was the wrong one; singing politically non correct song could land a private in court. No Communist ever wrote laws or doctrine to make that situation entirely clear. Legality would have defeated the entire purpose of a totalitarian atmosphere.
You just had to know what was sayable or unsayable, sense it, feel it. If you did not feel it, then you were either hopelessly stupid, or an enemy of the state. Both the stupid and the enemy were entirely expendable. They provided good practical examples for the others, to learn the everyday behavior for a society devoid of rules.
The modern Internet jungle quite reminds me of those lost days. Much like the victims of the Communist regime, the victims of the modern Internet can be pretty much anybody who somehow demands too much, in some awkward, embarrassing or disruptive way. The modern Internet is overrun with spies, hacker thieves, intrusive databanks, filters and censors. This is no longer a free and pristine electronic wonderland — any more than late-period Communism was all about being genuinely communal.
Of course Communist societies relentlessly described themselves as liberated and avant-garde, and they even claimed that everything was freely shared even when shops were empty. It took real struggle to realize that this blizzard of official rhetoric just didn’t coincide with people’s lived reality. Today’s Internet users haven’t gotten this far as yet; they still talk about their “free services,” as if not paying for commercial big-data spyware was somehow utopian.
Computer communication systems were not born free. The original freedom of the Internet came as a second-hand unplanned consequence, as the work of brave activists and hackers, and as a glitch.
It’s only when you transgress that you can fully feel and understand the borders, the limits. Aaron Swartz’s big mistake was to believe in the limitless possibilities of a media system, just because he was good at coding for it.
Serbian computer users also thought they could permanently outsmart the technically illiterate police and blinkered Communist court system. That worked, too, for about a generation’s time. However, the current Serbian government isn’t by no means a tottering Communist nomenklatura. Today’s Serbian state system and its enthusiastic majority voters do not consider the Internet any obstacle to their nationalist and Orthodox religious ambitions. If anything, the Internet helps to reveal who their enemies are, not that they had many doubts. The new state needs new enemies, and new martyrs, too.
The Internet was once an oasis for those who thought and spoke differently, a global arena of public opinion in which to demonstrate the power of the powerless. That’s not how it works in this decade. But maybe that is good news of a kind: as we lose our anonymity, that old Internet in which no one knew you were a dog, the chains of the dog’s masters also become more visible to everyone.
Serbia is so small and poor that the NSA could scarcely be bothered to spy on it, the NSA being busy spying on its major NATO allies in the EU. However, living out of the imperial limelight has both upsides and downsides for Serbia. The downside is that the modern Serbian state has all kinds of unaccountable power over virtual Serbian life, but the upshot is that the repressed Serbian bloggers are still alive. Their quarrel was too small to get them liquidated, for there just wasn’t all that much at stake.
Serbia lacks the public conscience of a major third-world player like Brazil, which fought for years for its own, national, internet civil rights constitution.
However, Serbia does have one good thing: genuine activism in the streets. Recently, Women in Black from Serbia had a lynch threat on Facebook. The porte parole of the serbian antiterror police on Facebook, addressing his usual audience of right-wing Facebook hooligans, advised them to beat up Women in Black in the streets instead of uselessly brawling with each other. Women in Black have always been the target of hate and violence and foul language, due to their persistent street presence. However, to have this customary behavior blatantly revealed to everyone on Facebook changed the situation, and the Serbian porte parole will be suspended from duty for his indiscretion. He might even be charged and convicted of something or other,since Women in Black are presssing charges.
There must be some difference between the three Serbian bloggers, who were convicted of death threats and hate speech while meaning no real harm other than sarcasm, and this policeman, an agent of the state who would rather like the state’s opponents to come to some extralegal harm at the hand of thugs. That difference is called “justice.” The more of that you have, the less need you have to loudly exult about all of your martyrs.